In the wake of this week’s local elections, where Ukip took nearly a quarter of all votes, Alex Snowdon looks at what they represent and how the left should respond

Nigel Farage

This week’s county council election results, together with the South Shields parliamentary by-election, appeared to represent a breakthrough for the United Kingdom Independence Party. Some caution about long-term predictions is required: Ukip hasn’t yet shown it can win a parliamentary seat and the first-past-the-post system means there’s no guarantee Nigel Farage’s hard-right party will do so in the 2015 general election. There may, also, be a swing back to the Tories among right-wing voters in 2015, with no guarantee that a mid-term ‘protest vote’ can be sustained.

Nonetheless, Ukip’s success on Thursday is substantial enough to justify taking the issue of the party’s rise seriously. Ukip took nearly a quarter of all votes in the local elections. This is not representative of the country as a whole, as it was largely the ‘shires’ that went to the polls this week, but together with recent opinion polls it indicates clear growth in support for the party.

The South Shields result is also significant. Getting almost 25% in the Labour heartlands (the Tyneside seat has had a Labour MP continuously since 1935 and has never returned a Tory since the Great Reform Act of 1832) shows Ukip can prosper way beyond the semi-rural, predominantly middle class southern English seats regarded as its home turf. In South Shields Ukip functioned as a way for right-of-centre voters to register disenchantment with the coalition parties: Lib Dem and Tory support fell dramatically.

The relative success in South Shields does not, however, mean that Ukip is picking up lots of ex-Labour voters. Previous polling on this question indicates that a high proportion of Ukip voters have voted Tory in the past; traditional Labour voters are a small part of the Ukip voting base. This is even true in an area like South Shields: note that Labour’s percentage of the vote held up (just over 50%). The number of votes for Labour declined, but that has a lot to do with the lower turnout which is typical of a by-election.

It is, however, obvious that Labour cannot assume it will pick up votes (compared to the 2010 general election) just because its opinion poll ratings are good. Nationally, Labour is benefiting from the opposition to the coalition – in particular the collapse of the Lib Dem vote after it joined the Tories in imposing austerity – but it is not winning support on the basis of any enthusiasm for a positive alternative. Labour’s weaknesses also fuel a general anti-politics and anti-establishment mood that can find expression in votes for Ukip.

What is Ukip, and what does it represent?

The Ukip membership base is middle class, but its voter base is now clearly going well beyond the middle class. Previous polling indicates that Ukip is genuinely cross-class in its appeal. This should not distract from the fact that it is in essence a right-wing middle class party: in composition this can be seen in its leadership, activist base and membership, but it’s also a matter of its politics, which are thoroughly at odds with working class interests.

It would be wrong to interpret Ukip as another far-right party comparable to the BNP (which, pleasingly, now has no councillors at all), although some fascists are sympathetic to Ukip and see it as the next best thing in the absence of a credible fascist party. But it is important to grasp that Ukip stands unequivocally to the right of the Tories and plays a dangerous role in relation to political debate about immigration and race.

Above all, Ukip’s role is to pull the terms of political debate to the right. The party exerts pressure on a divided and fractious Tory Party, where the activist base and many backbench MPs are in fact close to Ukip politically. Strong electoral showings for Ukip also encourage a further shift to the right on immigration by Labour. This, in turn, makes it harder for left-wing arguments to get a hearing. It’s also important to note that a partial revival of harder, more explicitly far-right politics is still a real possibility, as the crisis is prolonged and the ‘debate’ about immigration becomes nastier (especially if the Left doesn’t shape things in a different direction).

The big issues motivating Ukip voters are immigration and Europe. Most people seemingly have little, if any, idea what its policies are beyond those issues. Politically Ukip is a small-government, low taxes, libertarian party that is bonded by hostility to the European Union and to immigration, with a dash of traditionalist social conservatism (e.g. opposition to gay marriage).

But it’s specifically the question of immigration – which is tightly linked in their voters’ minds with the EU – that is enabling the party’s support to grow. Anti-immigrant sentiment is an important right-wing response to the capitalist crisis. That doesn’t mean it is simply a product of the crisis – obviously such attitudes have much deeper and longer-term roots – but it is sharpened by the crisis, as people lash out at perceived threats and sources of economic and social problems.

We also need to register the role of Islamophobia. Overt Islamophobia is not Ukip’s main selling point, but polling has clearly indicated strongly Islamophobic views among its voters and there’s a tight connection between Islamophobia and contemporary anti-immigrant feeling. It’s an important part of the ideological mix in a way that wasn’t the case when Enoch Powell was stirring up trouble in the 1960s or when the National Front grew in the 1970s.

The notion of immigrants as both an ‘enemy without’ and an ‘enemy within’ is linked to contemporary imperialism and Islamophobia. This strand of racist ideology could yet become more prominent in the Ukip ‘brand’.

Ukip and Tory decline

A key factor in the rise of Ukip is the long-term historic decline of the Conservative Party. In the 1950s and 1960s the Tories got close to 50% of the popular vote in general elections. In the Thatcher and Major era it was somewhat lower, but still remained above 40%. In 1979 – the year of Thatcher’s first victory – the Tories got almost 45%, then the Tories were in the 41-43% range in 1983, 1987 and 1992. In 2010, despite 13 years of a disillusioning Labour government and the economic crisis, Cameron’s party could only muster 36% of the popular vote.

Party membership has declined massively (compared to 30 years ago never mind the peak of the 1950s) and the Tory base is no longer as cohesive as it was in the 1980s: it is somewhat smaller and more fractured. This does not, though, mean that we should disregard Ukip’s growth on the grounds that it is simply a splitting of the right-wing vote. Ukip can pull British politics to the right and harden the right-wing base of the Tory Party.

The Tories’ long-term decline overlaps with another long-term phenomenon: the decline in faith in the established political parties and the weakening of the political mainstream. In 1979 the Tories, Labour and Liberals got almost 97% of the votes between them; in 2010 it was 88%. And in many European, local and other elections so far this century it’s been much lower.

The disillusionment with established politics expressed in that decline for the big established parties – and also in lower voter turnout – has resulted in greater fragmentation and volatility in elections. It is a Europe-wide phenomenon, not just British, and in very broad terms is the consequence of more than three decades of neo-liberalism and its hollowing out of democracy and trust in official politics. In the context of a weak Left (especially in the electoral sphere) to provide a more positive direction, Ukip can score significant electoral successes.

The Left’s response

What should the Left’s response be? Above all, we need to commit to creating a credible and broad counterweight to Ukip and the right-wing arguments (especially over immigration) which drive it, therefore offering a left-wing alternative to the crisis and pulling politics to the left. This cannot, in the short to medium term, take the form of an electoral party because prospects for the outside-Labour left in electoral politics are poor.

Instead our focus must be on extra-parliamentary struggle: marches, protests, strikes and campaigns. We need a united mass movement against cuts which rests upon a radically different, left-wing, perspective on the crisis. We need to popularise anti-austerity slogans and demands, alongside a left-wing interpretation of the state we are in. The People’s Assembly – not just the event in Westminster Central Hall on 22 June itself, but using that gathering to build an on-going coalition that can deliver co-ordinated mass action – is our greatest opportunity here.

The Left also needs to directly challenge the right-wing myths about immigration and offer an alternative viewpoint, which is linked to making a positive case for multiculturalism, the role of migrant workers, and so on. This shouldn’t be a purely defensive argument framed by our political enemies. A left-wing perspective on immigration has to be integral to socialists’ arguments and activity in the broad anti-cuts movements of which we are a part.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).